Why Is This Man Talking? : Pop music: Once reclusive, Michael Jackson is suddenly ubiquitous. His people say it's just a coincidence.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you own a television set, chances are you have witnessed the sudden coming-out of Michael Jackson, a pop recluse whose once brilliant light seemed to be fading in America only a month ago.

The enigmatic superstar, who was generating more press over his storied personal life than his music, has returned from a world tour to barn-burn America in a series of hard-to-miss performances--from President Clinton's inauguration to the American Music Awards to a halftime show during the Super Bowl, which wound up being the most-watched TV program ever.

On Wednesday night, Jackson's media blitz will reach its zenith when ABC broadcasts a live, 90-minute interview by Oprah Winfrey (tape delayed on the West Coast) from his ranch in Santa Ynez. Jackson hasn't sat down for a one-on-one TV interview in nearly a decade.

What's unusual about all this is that the pop artist seemingly has nothing new to promote. His last album, "Dangerous," has been on the market for more than a year.

So what gives?

"We're in the '90s, and people expect to be much more a part of the life of a celebrity. It was more natural in the '70s and '80s for Michael to be private, even to be sometimes reclusive," said Bertram Fields, Jackson's attorney in Los Angeles. "Michael is getting to be an older, more mature person. I don't mean he's old, he's still young. But as he matures, he's ready to speak out about his feelings on things."

Jackson, 34, has become a more visible spokesman lately for his charitable activities. In a glitzy ballroom press conference two weeks ago, Jackson announced a $1.25-million program to provide drug, health and counseling services to Los Angeles inner-city youth who suffered during last spring's riots. His Super Bowl halftime show, meanwhile, was a tribute to Heal the World, his year-old humanitarian foundation to help children and the environment.

"You have to say, the guy has a sense of the dramatic, that's for sure," said Roy Trakin, senior editor of Hits magazine. "I think he's utilizing all his media powers in the last couple of months to really summon up an intense public display. This is an answer to the critical view that he's lost touch with his constituency. A lot of people felt that audiences could no longer relate to him as a human being."

Jackson's manager and publicists, however, insist that the timing of the whirlwind appearances is nothing more than sheer coincidence--even though they have resulted in a tremendous sales surge of "Dangerous" albums.

"There is no master plan," maintained one source in Jackson's production company. "This has been the busiest few weeks he has had in years, but you don't plan these things. We didn't schedule the inauguration. We didn't schedule the Super Bowl. And we certainly don't control his nominations (at the recent NAACP Image Awards and the American Music Awards). It just happened that all of these events fell near the first of the year, and he happened to be in town."

But the Winfrey interview is another matter. Even though Winfrey approached Jackson, his cooperation was a "management decision," one source said, to corral the runaway rumors that have been hounding the Gloved One for years--ranging from Jackson taking baths in Evian water during his last tour to demanding that a white boy play him in a recent soft-drink commercial. The latest tale has Jackson making arrangements to moon walk--for real, via a personal expedition to the moon.

"Michael has decided to do the Oprah interview because the press has invented so many ridiculously weird stories about him," said Sandy Gallin, Jackson's manager, who confirmed that his client will receive no money for the prime-time special. "They seem to be escalating as time goes by, and Michael thought it was time that he address some of these absurd stories."

For some time, critics have charged that Jackson has become a pop follower rather than a pop leader, a sheltered artist approaching middle age who has lost touch with his aging American fans--despite a huge worldwide following--and is failing to captivate a new generation. In their eyes, his recent exposure is no accident.

"Regardless of what he says, 'Dangerous' was his least successful album in more than a decade," observed an executive at a competing record label. "He didn't tour in America. I don't think he could do the ticket sales that a Michael Jackson is accustomed to. He's created such a high throne for himself that he can't come down.

"Then the rumors leaked out, and he started getting a lot of criticism. People are wondering why his look has changed, why his skin is getting lighter and lighter, why he grabs his crotch so much, why he's always hanging around little kids. What is this all about? I think he's finally decided that he has to show--not that he's normal in the traditional sense, because he's not--but that he's at least in touch with reality. That he's still the entertainer we all know and love."

Producer Debra Di Maio said that no subject will be out of bounds and no ground rules have been laid for the Winfrey interview--sentiments echoed by Jackson's management. "I was talking with Oprah (last week), and she feels very much compelled to ask the questions everybody wants the answers to," said Di Maio, who has prepared videotape retrospectives and performance clips to drop in the interview as she sees fit.

"She knows a lot of people will be watching the interview and waiting for their question to be asked. When she had the initial conversation with Michael, she said, 'I will only do this if you feel comfortable, because I'm going to ask everything. ' And he said, 'Fine.' "

Jackson's management and publicists would not reveal Jackson's plans beyond Wednesday night. There's some speculation that he may announce a U.S. tour during the ABC special, to which Fields responded: "I don't think that there's any special announcement, but if Michael answers questions about his plans, there's always a possibility that someone may be surprised by what the plans are."

"Dangerous" has sold more than 4 million copies domestically, making it a genuine hit. But Jackson's 1987 album, "Bad," sold 6 million copies and his 1982 "Thriller" sold a record 21 million copies. Both earlier albums were backed by U.S. tours.

Jackson's recent performances have dramatically pumped up sales of "Dangerous." Three weeks ago, "Dangerous" was No. 131 on the Billboard pop album chart, with weekly sales of 8,000 units. Following Jackson's inaugural gig, the album jumped to No. 88 with sales of 11,000 units. After the American Music Awards, "Dangerous" sales almost doubled to 21,000, and the album finished No. 41.

With the numbers still coming in, post-Super Bowl sales are running one-third higher than the previous week. After the Winfrey interview, some industry sources feel that Jackson's album could potentially reach 50,000 sales a week, which would put him back in the Top 10.

ABC expects the ratings for Wednesday's program to be huge, rivaling the American Music Awards on Jan. 25, which attracted 20 million households and 32% of the viewing audience. The network has reportedly been selling 30-second commercial spots to advertisers for $230,000, compared to the average of $125,000 per 30 seconds that ABC normally receives in that 9:30-11 p.m. time slot.

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